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The prospect of uranium mining in Greenland might be over

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Nuclear Monitor #792, 2 Oct 2014,

Author: Niels Henrik Hooge − member of NOAH Friends of the Earth Denmark's Uranium Group.


NM792. 4419 After dominating much of the political debate and causing dissent and conflict in Greenland for more than two years, the uranium issue has probably been taken off the agenda. Last year, Greenland's uranium ban was lifted mainly to make one project possible, the enormous uranium / rare earths mine at Kuannersuit / Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland. Realistically, it is the only project on the table in the near and mid-term. The newly elected government's plan was to issue a mining permit next year and to have the mine up and running by 2017. But it now appears that the environmental impact assessment will not be completed before 2−3 years from now.

After a turbulent first year, the social democratic Siumut-led government's original four-seat majority in Parliament has shrunk to one. And in August, due to continued internal disputes within the government, a unified opposition called for an early election. The opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit – a green, leftist party − which in all likelihood will be at the centre of a new government, has repeatedly stated that it intends to have a referendum on the uranium ban and that it expects it to be reinstated.

One of the reasons for the incumbent government's lack of popularity is that it has become clear that its biggest election campaign promise cannot be fulfilled. To the government, mining and particularly uranium mining has long been synonymous with self-sufficiency and quick economic independence from Denmark. But lately a series of scientific studies have disproved that uranium mining or even the entire minerals sector can support Greenland's economy by itself.

The biggest blow to the government's minerals strategy came in January this year, when a study was published by Copenhagen University and University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik.1 The study, which was widely exposed in the media, concluded that 24 concurrent large-scale mining projects would be required to zero out the financial support from Denmark. To achieve this goal within a reasonable timeframe, a new large-scale project would have to be developed and launched every other year and an unrealistically large number of mineral deposits would be required. However, such a resource-based economy is not economically sustainable, the study concluded: when, after some years, the mining industry begins to decline, the country would be left with the same budgetary challenges as before, but with fewer resources. The study estimated that in a best-case scenario, the extraction of hard minerals could begin to meaningfully contribute to Greenland's economy within 5−10 years.

These findings have been confirmed by other reports. For example an analysis by Greenland's Economic Council, published in September, concluded that a natural resource wealth fund modelled on the Norwegian oil fund, scaled down to Greenland's smaller economy, would have to be 5−7 times greater than the amount Norwegians have amassed from the sale of their North Sea oil in order to offset the Danish transfer payments.

Failure of a long lobby campaign

This is all bad news for the lobbyists who have campaigned to introduce uranium mining in Greenland. Once again, it has been demonstrated that the idea was never really accepted by the general public – it was always a project forced through by a small but powerful alliance of industrialists, politicians and civil servants who were willing to set aside all consideration for democracy, civil liberties and good governance.

The lobby campaign started in 2007, when the Australian company Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GMEL), which is licensed to explore for rare earths at Kuannersuit, announced that it also intended to extract uranium. It has been known for more than half a century that Kuannersuit contains substantial amounts of uranium and thorium. But whereas uranium until this point in time was considered the main deposit, it was now mentioned as an insignificant but inevitable by-product of the rare earths that GMEL wants to extract.

The campaign's second step was when a delegation of politicians and government officials made a study tour to Canada in 2010 to investigate the Canadian uranium mining industry. And it peaked in September last year, when the Greenlandic parliament, Inatsisartut, repealed the country's 25 year old uranium ban with a one-vote majority. The repeal was preceded by two government reports that exonerated uranium mining from any suspicion of negative environmental impacts and concluded that it is possible to safely extract uranium if the minimum nuclear proliferation standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency are met.

Lowering procedural environmental standards

In June, a new strategy was devised to circumvent the public's growing resentment of the prospect of uranium mining: the government tabled amendments to the Mineral Resources Act to remove the right of public access to documents that constitute the basis for decisions on issuance of mining permits, before they are given, and to repeal access to justice. If adopted, the pillars which according to the Aarhus Convention are essential to good environmental governance will no longer exist in Greenland.

At the same time, a week-long workshop was held in Greenland's capital Nuuk to lay down the groundwork for future legislation on extraction, production and exportation of uranium. The workshop, which was organised by DIIS, the Danish Institute for International Studies, a government-funded think tank with close ties to the Danish Foreign Ministry, was closed to the public and the identity of the participants kept secret. However, it later emerged that three representatives of GMEL attended – but no stakeholders from civil society. By any standard, it is unheard of that a mining company actively participates in secret preparations for legislative proceedings with such far-reaching consequences as the uranium legislation in Greenland.2

Not entirely a bad experience

Considering that all these efforts now seem to have been in vain, a brief review might be appropriate. First and foremost, it is striking how consistently the incumbent Greenlandic government has broken its promises of openness, transparency, neutral information and public participation in developing the minerals sector. To say the least, the political process has been flawed.

No less disappointing has been the role of the Danish government: Through some of its institutions – mainly The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and DIIS, but also others − it actively promoted uranium mining with no regard to its negative health and environmental impacts.

However, the experience has not been all bad: when it mattered the most, Greenland's civil society stepped up and countered the efforts to force through uranium mining at all costs. Last year, an NGO coalition, reflecting a broad spectrum of Greenland's NGO community, was formed as a direct response to the government's attempts to cover up the negative aspects of the various large-scale mining projects in the making. And for the first time ever, Greenlandic and Danish NGOs started a close collaboration to initially keep the uranium ban in effect and when it was lifted, to prevent the Kuannersuit mining project from ever happening.3

As a consequence of the failed attempt to introduce uranium mining in Greenland, the NGO community has started to blossom and environmental considerations seems to play a bigger role in shaping public opinion. Luckily, that may be the only lasting result to come out of this pro-uranium lobby campaign.


1. The Committee for Greenlandic Mineral Resources to the Benefit of Society: To the Benefit of Greenland, 2014,

2. Falke Thue Mikailsen, Palle Bendsen, Varste M. Berndtsson and Niels Henrik Hooge: 'Uranium in Greenland: Phasing out Democracy', The Arctic Journal, 9 Sept 2014,

See also: Marc Jacobsen, 29 July 2014, 'Proposed law amendment may threaten good Greenlandic governance',

3. Press release, Avataq, The Danish Ecological Council, NOAH Friends of the Earth Denmark and SustainableEnergy, 2014, 'International conferences in Nuuk and Copenhagen document that uranium mining is not sustainable',